A winning streak.
After falling into an early-season hole in the standings, the only way the Stars will be able to claw back into the Western Conference conversation is to string together multiple wins. As much as talk of one game, and one period, at a time was the message heading into the road trip, the numbers were - and still are - pretty clear. The Stars need wins. Lots of them. In bunches.
And last week that's exactly what they got. To the tune of which this collective group had never done before. Entering this week the Stars have won four straight games and five of their last six. The four-game winning streak is the club's longest since April of the shortened 2013 season. That's two seasons ago. Before the arrival of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Lindy Ruff, Jim Nill, etc.
For all that the Stars accomplished last year, they never once won more than three consecutive games. The key to Dallas' success from a year ago came in their ability to, for the most part, limit the damage. The Stars played over half the season last year before ever going three straight games without a win - let alone suffering three straight regulation losses. You may recall that Dallas got off to a horrific January start. They had another small hiccup in March. But aside from those stretches, the Stars really never went too long without a win or two to steady the ship. That's how they made their way through the schedule. Chipping away, with few lengthy streaks of either kind.
That type of flat-lined path flew right out the window early this season. In the first 26 games of the season, the Stars already had three separate streaks of three-or-more regulation losses. They only had two in the entire 82-game schedule last season. Once that happens, it's not very complicated. Winning streaks are the only thing that can counterbalance the early losses.
But why they needed a streak so badly also comes down to more than simply math. In previous editions of this column, we have mentioned that only way to get over certain issues that this Stars team has suffered from is to get through similar situations repeatedly and successfully. So, let's see how Dallas did in some of those areas last week.
First of all, the goaltending was spectacular. Kari Lehtonen had his best week of the season by a mile, and reminded Stars fans of just how sharp he can look when he's on top of his game. He stopped 48 of 49 shots in a pair of wins over Vancouver and Calgary. In the first period of both games, he almost single-handedly kept his team even, giving the Stars a chance to weather early storms from frustrated teams. Then, after he allowed four goals (none of which could be pinned on him), and was yanked from Sunday's game in Edmonton, Anders Lindback came on for his first win with the Stars. Lindback, who was plagued with a series of rough performances earlier this season, recovered strongly, stopping nine of the ten shots he faced. More impressive was that he closed the door after allowing a goal on his first shot in relief (again, a breakaway that was not his fault). He also stopped six of eight in the shootout, and became the first Dallas goaltender not named Kari to register a point this season. All told, even in a week where the Stars allowed five goals in a game, their goaltenders stopped 72 of 78 shots against. Perhaps most importantly though, not a single one of the six goals against could be considered "soft." Going back to the issue of confidence, those types of goals have crippled the Stars all too frequently this year. After not getting the big save for much of this season, the Stars got a number of them last week. In the three games combined, the Stars had a save percentage of .923. Overall for the season, Stars goaltenders have a combined .895 save percentage. Last week was a huge upgrade in the sport's most important position.
Special teams has been another problem area this season. The Stars currently rank in the bottom ten in both power play and penalty kill. This week, however, both came through in a big way. While they only had six total power plays last week, Jamie Benn's goal late in the second period on Sunday proved to be the spark in the comeback win. It is those moments that can change the complexion of a game, and too many have slipped away from Dallas with a 15.4% conversion rate this season. At the other end, the Stars killed eight of nine power plays against this season - almost 10% better than their season average. Perhaps not surprisingly, since goaltenders are often referred to as a team's best penalty-killer, the Stars went a perfect 8-for-8 in Vancouver and Calgary. Additionally, in both of those games the Stars had to kill off huge penalties midway through the third period, while protecting a one-goal lead.
Speaking of protecting leads, for all the problems the Stars have dealt with this season, the third period probably sticks out as the largest. The final frame struggles have been well documented, but getting outscored 39-20 before the road trip tells you just about all you need to know about the Stars third-period woes. However, last week the Stars scored three third-period goals, while allowing none. In fact, in the last six games combined, Dallas has only allowed two third-period goals. One of those was an extra -attacker goal allowed to New Jersey.
So, what does that mean? Have the Stars completely rid themselves of any third-period problems for the rest of the season? Of course not. But have they turned a corner?
Well, all three games this week were either tied or one-goal games in the final ten minutes of the third period. Not only did the Stars win all three, but from the goaltender, to the skaters in front of him, they looked like a confident bunch. Even when the Stars were trailing 5-4 in Edmonton in the final frame, there was a sense that getting the equalizing goal was just a matter of time. It was that same sense that has been there earlier this season, only awaiting a potential goal-against. But now, the Stars have played two-plus weeks without the third period being a problem. They're 5-1 during that span, and looked like a different team in three straight contests with the game on the line. So, you decide if they've turned a corner.
Seasons aren't fixed in a week, and problems aren't solved overnight. And despite the 3-0 record, last week was hardly perfect. If Kari isn't playing at his absolute best, the first two games could have been drastically different. The second period against the Oilers serves as a sharp reminder that there is still a lot of need for improvement. However, the Stars just had a week filled with proverbial forks in the road, where things could have gone one way or another. That they went down the path they did, and in the process have put together the longest ever winning-streak for the new-era Stars, provides tangible hope, along with tangible results.
The Stars play two games this week with a short, Christmas break sandwiched in between. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the holiday approaches:
In the above section, we covered a few areas in which, last week, the Stars were successful where they hadn't been for much of this season. Added to that list was the Stars shootout win over the Oilers. Before the victory, Dallas had been just 1-5 this season in games decided past regulation. The overtime struggles date back to last season when the Stars wee 6-11 in OT and shootouts combined. Over the last two years the Stars are a meager 8-16 after 60 minutes. However, there is a trend that has surfaced in that time. For whatever reason, the Stars have been significantly better on the road than at home in extra-time games. Both Dallas OT/SO wins this season have come on the road, and all five losses have come at home. Including last season the Stars are 6-4 away from the AAC, and a remarkable 2-12 at home. After watching those kinds of repetitive results in person, it's no wonder some Stars fans don't care much for the consolation point.
The recent winning streak for the Stars moved their record back over .500 for the season at 14-13-5. This marks the first time the Stars have had a winning record since the first few days of November when the club was 4-3-4. Dallas' four-game winning streak is currently tied with the New York Islanders for the third-longest active streak in the NHL. Ahead of them are the San Jose Sharks (5) and the New York Rangers (6). The Stars and Rangers meet on December 29 at AAC. Both teams have two games before that meeting if they hope to keep their streaks intact for the head-to-head showdown.
Because of their light schedule over the last few weeks, the Stars have amongst the fewest games played in the NHL. Of the 14 Western Conference teams, only the Nashville Predators have played fewer games than Dallas. However, that also means the Stars have to make those games up, and they will do a lot of that following Christmas. Coming out of the break, Dallas will play 13 games over 25 nights, before a few days off for the All-Star break. The Stars only have consecutive non-game days twice over that span, and never go more than two days without playing.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.